Penn State president Eric Barron set off a firestorm in Happy Valley last month, following the death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. The real question, Barron said, isn’t how to regulate fraternities; it’s whether we should have them at all.
He’s right. And the answer is as clear as the Nittany-Blue sky: no. It’s time for Penn State and other universities to close down fraternities, which embody some of the worst behaviors of American men.
It’s not just that fraternity members are more likely than other male students to commit sexual assault or indulge in binge drinking, which led to Piazza’s death and criminal charges against 18 of his Beta Theta Pi brothers. It’s that fraternities teach men that they must degrade women — and debase themselves — to cement their tough-guy bona fides.
Anyone who believes otherwise should read Nicholas Syrett’s 2009 history of fraternities, The Company He Keeps. Founded at the all-male colleges of the 19th century, these institutions originally served to distinguish well-to-do students from others. Men of “good breeding” joined the “best” (read: richest) fraternities, reflecting the growing class hierarchies outside the university gates.
In some ways, of course, fraternities still serve that function: ask anyone on campus, and they can direct you to the rich-kid houses. But with the admission of large numbers of female students in the early 20th-century, fraternities took on a new purpose: to differentiate men from women.
And the easiest way to do that, Syrett writes, was to behave like a rough-hewn and misogynist brute. Real men drank copious amounts of liquor, unlike the allegedly effeminate teetotalers of the Prohibition years. And they had sex with as many women as possible, typically working-class or “charity” girls from college towns rather than the more proper (and, the brothers complained, asexual) women in their classes.
Some fraternities even barred members from talking to college women, except to malign them. “We have the spectacle of young men sitting on the porch of a luxurious fraternity house and criticizing certain passing ‘coeds’ … expressing disgust because their clothes do not fit them, and their hands are not neatly manicured,” one critic wrote in 1910.
Meanwhile, fraternity brothers competed to see who could “score” with the most women from outside school. “They made love to several girls,” another observer wrote, “and simply, we suppose, for the pleasure of reporting their triumphs when they returned to college.”
If anything, Syrett writes, the peer-driven pressure to bed down women increased with the postwar sexual revolution. As more college women had sex, there were fewer excuses for men who didn’t. Virginity marked a man as a weakling, or — even worse — as gay.
At Yale, fraternities held a “Pig Night,” where brothers competed for who could have sex with the ugliest women. “If they refuse, they face social ostracism for the rest of their New Haven careers,” one magazine reported, “plus the horrid fear of being labeled queer.”
Fraternities also mocked members with steady girlfriends, Syrett reports, because they threatened to divert male attention and loyalty away from the fraternity itself. Sleeping with many women made you a real man, but dating just one of them rendered you a captive of the opposite sex.
Into the present, some fraternities mandate that members report their sexual exploits at weekly meetings. Others surreptitiously watch or record brothers having sex with women, which provides real-time proof of their masculinity.
So does excessive drinking, of course. In the last hours of his life, Tim Piazza and his fellow pledges ran a so-called “gauntlet” of drinking stations: first vodka, then beer, then wine. When Piazza fell down the stairs at the fraternity, sustaining fatal injuries, his blood-alcohol level was at least three times the legal limit for driving.
And when one member suggested that the fraternity call emergency personnel to tend to Piazza, he was shoved against the wall by another brother and told to leave the house. Some members feared they would be cited for serving liquor or for hazing, which is illegal in Pennsylvania and 43 other states. Apparently real men don’t dial 911, at least not when their fraternity’s reputation is at stake.
Let’s be clear: not all fraternities are cesspools of violence and misogyny. And there’s plenty of both outside of the Greek system. A few years ago, a member of the marching band at Florida A&M died in a hazing episode. And just last fall, Harvard canceled the remaining games of the men’s soccer team after revelations of a Google-doc “scouting report” where players rated women according to their physical traits and imagined sexual positions.
But fraternities have these perverse brands of masculinity baked into their DNA. So the only real solution to the fraternity problem is to rid ourselves of fraternities, as Barron suggested. Over the past few decades, several colleges — including Middlebury, Bowdoin, and Williams — have done exactly that. Now other schools should follow suit.
Of course, nothing can stop a bunch of guys from affixing Greek letters to their names. But universities should stop recognizing-and subsidizing-them. Maybe then our male students will learn better ways of being a man.
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Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Emily Robertson) of The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (University of Chicago Press, 2017). firstname.lastname@example.org